May 24, 2004
The election debate over the future of Arizona’s public financing system for candidates is about to get under way, with both sides expected to raise millions of dollars to take their messages to voters.
An initiative committee called No Taxpayer Money for Politicians wants to amend the state constitution to strip away state funding from the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission. The group has collected nearly 270,000 signatures and should file them within a couple of weeks, said campaign manager Nathan Sproul. The group needs a little more than 183,000 valid signatures to qualify for the Nov. 2 ballot.
The initiative is led by conservative Republican activists with strong East Valley ties and is being funded by developers, homebuilders and other business interests.
A coalition of public interest and left-leaning advocacy groups are seeking to block the proposed amendment, working through a campaign committee called Keep It Clean.
In 1998, voters approved public funding for state and legislative candidates who agree to abide by strict spending limits. The state agency that allocates the funding raises about $12 million a year, primarily from court fines for minor offenses. Other sources include income tax filing donations of $5 per person, which are matched with money from the state’s General Fund.
The initiative would block the use of those funds and any other public money for candidate campaigns. Supporters hope voters are disgusted with the controversies that swirled around the commission during the 2002 state elections.
Supporters are expected to claim there was heavy-handed punishment of candidates who used private financing, such as Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Salmon of Mesa. They also will point to the misuse of campaign funds by three legislative candidates from Scottsdale who ran as a team of Libertarians.
"Is that 13 million dollars better spent on health care and education and tax relief for hardworking middle-class families?" Sproul asked. "Or is it better spent on the campaigns for politicians. This campaign is going to be about priorities."
Officially, the proposed amendment wouldn’t disband the Citizens Clean Elections Commission or repeal the public financing law. Sproul said the commission could persuade private foundations and supporting groups to donate money for candidates who don’t want to raise campaign funds.
But members of Keep It Clean claim that the initiative committee is intentionally misleading people. The state agency would be crippled because it wouldn’t raise enough money for all interested candidates, said Peter Fears, Keep It Clean outreach director.
"Clean Elections is the bane of incumbent politicians and incumbent interests," Fears said. "They want to amend the constitution and take away a choice."
In the past two months, Keep It Clean volunteers have sought out initiative petition circulators in parking lots and at public events, Fears said. The volunteers tried to educate people about the true purpose of the initiative, he said, and sometimes confronted circulators with possible violations of state law.
Keep It Clean has also started collecting affidavits from people who signed a petition and now want their names removed. But Fears admitted that those efforts likely won’t stop the initiative from qualifying for the ballot.
So the campaign is starting to hone its own message that special interests are funding the initiative because they are losing control over state politics.
Nearly half of all candidates seeking office this year have said they intended to use public dollars, which supporters said is a clear sign that the law works.
"I think (initiative supporters are) just looking at the numbers and saying, ‘Jeez, one more (election) cycle and there could be a majority of Clean Election candidates,’ " said Doug Ramsey, Keep It Clean spokesman. " ‘If it’s that well-established, we’ll never get rid of it. Here’s our last, best chance.’ "
No independent opinion polls have been taken on voter attitudes about the Arizona system since the 2002 elections.
But Arizona State University professor Bruce Merrill said initiative opponents might benefit indirectly from negative publicity about recordbreaking fund raising by the two mai n presidential candidates.
"I think people are going to think it’s kind of out of control and go back to
public financing," Merrill said.